Two U.S. production interns have legally proved that they were the latter in a federal court case —the first ever—ruling that the work completed during their unpaid internship was legitimate work worthy of pay. Both interns worked on the set of Black Swan for Fox Searchlight.

In Canadian news, two former Bell Mobility interns have gained media attention for filing federal-level complaints in May of 2012. The interns argue that their internship consisted of work that was worthy of pay, including telephone surveys and other menial tasks. The case is still under investigation.

BusinessWeek is reporting that Saturday Night Live is the high profile employer to be sued by its unpaid interns.

Although there as many as 300,000 intern positions in Canada (no official statistics exist), the Canadian government doesn’t address internships in the federal Labour Code. On a provincial level, B.C., Quebec and Ontario regulate internships through provincial employment acts.

According to the Employment Standards Act in Ontario, for example, an unpaid internship must be a form of training that meets the following six conditions. It’s important to note that the following conditions need not apply to internships that are part of a college or university program.

  • The internship must provide training similar to what would be provided in an educational environment
  • The intern must not replace someone else’s job
  • The internship is for the benefit of the intern
  • The employer providing training receives little or no immediate benefit from the intern’s activities
  • The intern is not entitled to a job at the end of the internship
  • The intern must know that the position is unpaid

Having completed three internships (independent of a university or college program), these set of criteria are, in my opinion, nearly impossible to fulfill. Poor internship programs task interns with menial tasks that are not educational and do not benefit the intern; good internships provide training and give interns valuable tasks that the employer is likely to benefit from. Both scenarios do not meet the entire list of criteria above.

Andrew Langille, a Toronto-based employment lawyer and grad student focusing his studies on unpaid internships and equality rights, agrees, saying in a CBC article that “somewhere above 90 per cent (of internships) should be paid and are not being paid.”

As I prepare to leave my full-time job (benefits and all) to enter an internship-required post-grad program, I know that another unpaid internship is likely in my future. I have financially prepared myself for that scenario, and in the months leading up to my internship I will do extensive research to find a suitable, perhaps paid, position that offers a valuable learning experience worthy of my time and skills. Were I unable to afford the time or money to intern again, I would not have entered the program.

I am not naïve to the fact that I have chosen a career path with plenty of unpaid pit stops. Although the unpaid internship is a frustrating factor of the media industry, it’s not one that I, nor any future journalist, PR pro or advertising executive, can claim to encounter unknowingly. Precedent-setting legal cases may begin to unravel the unpaid internship, but for now, doing an internship is a matter of choice, one that thousands of young people are willing to make each year.